1700 miles to glory ------------------------------------------------------------------------------

1700 miles to glory
my trip to Sun-n-Fun in a homebuilt
April 7-13, 1995
By: Mark Ambrose

After years of dreaming about it, and months preparing for it, the big day had finally arrived. I was ready to make the pilgrimage to Sun-n-Fun in my own homebuilt aircraft. Accompanying me were two of my flying buddies, Bill Hass and Kevin Green. Each flying his own RANS S-6 Coyote II. My plane is a RANS S-7 Courier. The three aircraft were fairly compatible with cruise speeds ranging from 90 to 95 mph.

Departing from our individual home fields in various parts of Maryland and Virginia, the plan was to rendezvous at Shannon Airport in north eastern Virginia at noon. We would then depart as a flight of three from there. Our route of flight would take us from northeast Virginia through eastern North and South Carolina, squeezing between the Savannah Class B airspace (TCA to us old guys), and the Atlantic coast in Georgia, then around a large restricted area in Florida and direct to Lakeland. It was just shy of 1700 miles round trip.

Friday, April 7, 1995

Weather conditions were perfect for our trip. I'd been watching nothing but the weather channel for two weeks. I couldn't believe our luck when I found out we were forecast to have tailwinds. I'm as nervous as a virgin on her wedding night. I think I got maybe four hours sleep last night. Most of my concern is related to the possibility of mechanical problems. Although I had never had any major problems with my plane, on a trip like this anything can happen. Using my own personal theory that if you pack a spare part, then that part will not fail, I had enough junk to open a warehouse for Leading Edge Airfoils. I had the usual stuff like tool kits and extra spark plugs and muffler springs, but I also packed a spare fuel pump, fuel filters, a length of fuel line, duct tape, clamps, safety wire, an entire inventory of AN hardware, a survival kit, and at the last minute, fifty feet of nylon rope in case I needed to get out of a tree. If you could name it I probably had at least one of it with me.

The airport was deserted when I arrived around 8:30 AM and I was glad. I had a million thoughts racing through my head as I went about getting the airplane ready for flight. The last thing I wanted was the distraction of well wishers.

I had just finished packing my gear into the airplane and was about to top off the tanks when a couple of flying buddies showed up (obviously green with envy). They stood around and asked me stupid questions like "So you're getting ready to leave huh?" and "Well are you all ready to go?" No guys, I'm not all ready to go. I'm standing here answering your stupid questions, and probably forgetting to do something important. I didn't actually say that. I just smiled and tried to concentrate on what I was doing.

By 10:15 AM I was ready. The warm sun was expanding the fuel in the overfilled tanks and was already pouring out of the left vent as I taxied to the end of the runway. I punched the identifier for Shannon into the GPS and blasted off into clear blue skies. Shannon was only 39 miles away and the short trip allowed me to calm down a bit and organize my thoughts, not to mention my cockpit. I love the S-7, but the drawback that single seaters, or tandem seat aircraft have is not having that empty seat next to you to put charts, cameras and what- have-you.

At 11:00 AM I entered downwind at Shannon and couldn't believe it when I heard Kevin and Bill come on the unicom frequency. They were two miles north of the airport and were having a heated discussion about where the airport was supposed to be. As I pulled off the runway they were calling final and we all landed within a couple minutes of each other. Talk about timing.

Kevin topped off his tanks since he had flown about an hour from his home base in Hagerstown, Maryland. Bill and I didn't bother. Bill had 26 gallons usable between his wing tanks and a 15 gallon fuselage tank. I had installed an auxiliary 9 gallon fuel tank on the rear seat specifically for this flight. Between it and the wing tanks I had about 25 gallons usable which gave Bill and I a five hour range. Which I found out later in the flight was about two hours longer than the range of my bladder. Kevin only had his 15 gallon wing tanks, but with his Rotax 912 4-stroke he burned a lot less fuel than Bill and I with our 582's. In fact we were going to use this trip to get a good comparison of the three engines. A standard Rotax 912, a standard 582 with Bing carburetors and my 582 with the Ellison throttle body injector.

The excitement was apparent in each of us. We acted like a group of school kids on a field day while waiting for the fuel truck. By 11:45 AM the three of us were airborne, 15 minutes ahead of schedule. Our next stop was Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 184 miles away. The air was a little choppy from the recent passage of a cold front. But the promised tail winds were there. We formed up in a loose formation about 500 to 1,000 feet apart. Easy enough to keep each other in sight, but with enough separation so that you weren't constantly jockeying the throttle. We amused ourselves by taking pictures and video of each other and yakked over the radio like idiots until the excitement started to wear off a little.

The tail winds drove our ground speed up to 98-100 mph. We landed at Chapel Hill a little before 2:00 PM and refueled. The FBO charged us $2.37 a gallon for 100LL avgas which we thought was outrageous. Before we left everyone drew a large red "X" through the airport on their charts vowing never to stop there again.

Thirty-three minutes later we were airborne again and climbing through pretty choppy air to our next fuel stop and planned destination for the night, Walterboro, South Carolina, some 197 miles distant. For some reason my plane didn't seem to want to climb. Some times I'd get only 400 fpm and other times I was just holding my own. I had just about convinced myself to turn around and go back to investigate when Kevin came on the radio and asked if anybody else was having trouble climbing or did he just have a problem. Bill and I both jumped on the frequency and complained of experiencing the same problem. We all agreed we were experiencing the effects of the choppy air. You can't imagine how relieved you feel when you find out that some one else is experiencing the same phenomena and it's not just you. We eventually struggled up to 3000 feet in the light chop and picked up the tail wind.

In about an hour the chop disappeared and we were treated to silky smooth air for the remainder of the trip. We were really making good time. The refueling stop had taken about half the time I figured it would. About halfway to Walterboro Bill suggested that rather than spend the night there we press on further south if there was enough daylight. Bill was never one to waste a second of daylight. Secretly I think he just wanted an excuse to test his newly installed landing light. While Kevin was off the frequency checking the weather or something, Bill and I decided that if we could get refueled in time we'd press ahead to Fernandina Beach, Florida. We informed Kevin of our decision when he came back on frequency and he made it unanimous.

Fernandina Beach was another 187 miles south of Walterboro. There was no other decent airport with hotels along our route of flight. If we were going to leave Walterboro, we'd have to make it all the way to Fernandina Beach before dark or risk sleeping under the planes in sleeping bags, a prospect I was definitely not looking forward to. With our first critical in-flight decision made it was now it was a race against the sun.

Walterboro, South Carolina was a beehive of activity. We landed around 4:45 PM dodging parachutes and gliders. Walterboro is the headquarters for the White Lightning Aircraft Corporation, makers of the Lightning Bug and White Lightning. The White Lightning is holder of several F.A.I. international world speed records. While we were waiting for someone to operate the pumps the designer came over to talk with us and said he was flying the Lightning Bug to Sun-n-Fun the next day. The Lightning Bug is a small, single place, all composite aircraft that cruises at 250 mph on a 90 hp AMW 2-stroke engine. The entire kit, plus engine can be purchased for $19,500. The only problem is the airplane stalls at 85 mph clean and a claimed 65 mph with flaps. According to the designer, an engine failure in a Lightning Bug is an immediate bail out situation. Personally I can't imagine writing off an entire airplane because of an engine failure.

Naturally since we were in a hurry there was not a sole in sight to run the gas pumps. We paced around the ramp nervously for several minutes, watching the sun slide lower and lower. Finally we couldn't stand it anymore and turned on the pumps ourselves and started fueling. We looked like a pit crew at Indy, there were hoses and ladders and oil bottles flying all over the place. I had just finished refueling and was at the counter paying my bill when Kevin and Bill walked in. I told them I was going back out to keep an eye on the planes. I was looking down stuffing the change back into my wallet as I spun around and stepped away from the counter towards the ramp... SPLAT! I slammed right into a plate glass wall. There was a loud crash as I bounced off the glass. I staggered back a few steps blinking and rubbing my forehead. The entire lobby went quiet, except for the sound of the glass still reverberating. I felt like a complete fool. "Damn!" I said rubbing my nose, "it's a good thing I'm flying, 'cause I sure as hell can't walk." Nobody laughed. Everyone knew I felt like a complete moron. I exited the FBO as quickly as possible and crawled into my plane and sat there rubbing my nose. When Bill and Kevin came out of the FBO they were both laughing hysterically. As they approached the planes they straightened up and tried to hide their snickering. We all checked in on frequency and taxied out for takeoff. Several minutes of silence passed. Then Kevin came on the radio and said that from now on he and Bill would make a low pass down any field before I landed to make sure the FBO didn't have any glass doors. I saw Bill doubled over in laughter and pounding his dash. It would've been funny if my nose wasn't throbbing so bad.

We finally got airborne at 5:33 PM, dodging glider tows on the way out. The sun was setting fast this time of the year. Nearing Savanna, Georgia we hugged the coastline and flew over a seemingly endless salt marsh with no place to land in an emergency. It was a tense 45 minutes. I had watched Bill drifting further and further right of course so I called him to ask what was going on. He said he knew he was right of course, but he could occasionally see solid ground under him and he was staying right where he was for the time being. The setting sun cast a golden glow off the water around Savannah. It was breathtakingly beautiful. We passed over Hilton Head and Jekyll Island with only 35 miles to go and fifteen minutes until official sunset. We knew we had it made and everyone relaxed a bit. A few minutes later we found ourselves flying parallel to a beautiful deserted beach about fifteen miles north of our destination. I mentioned something about how neat it would be to fly down the beach right on the deck. Suddenly Kevin was diving for the beach, with Bill hot on his heels. Not to be left out I dove after Bill. For the next 15 miles the three of us flew 20 feet off the beach at 95 mph. The radio was filled with howls of delight as we tore down the beach over the breaking wave tops. Occasionally we'd see a small group of people so we'd climb or swing wide to avoid them. I'd wave and they'd wave back. It was, without a doubt, the coolest thing I'd ever done in an airplane.

We finally ran out of beach about the time the GPS said we were five miles from the field so we popped up to pattern altitude and entered the pattern. As I was turning base I heard Kevin remark "It sure is crowded up here." I looked to the right and there he was tucked tight on my right wing. I said I'd land on the left side of the runway. Kevin said he's take the right. Bill told everybody to spread out and he would take the middle. That's how we landed at Fernandina Beach, like a flight of Blue Angles. It was a cool ending to the first day of flying. We taxied in right on the edge of darkness and tied down. We had flown 8.1 hours that day.

The FBO was about ready to close, but we talked them into sending us a fuel truck. We refueled in the dark so we could get an early start the next morning. I was really loving this Ellison. I was averaging 4.8 gph at 5800 rpm.

Because of a tennis tournament most of the hotels were booked. The FBO called around and finally found us a room at a hotel called Shoneys. A Canadian with a Cambodian wife, now living in Hilton Head offered to drive us to the hotel and we gladly accepted. Because of the tennis tournament the hotel really gouged us and charged us $120 for the room. Since the only other option was a sleeping bag on the floor of the FBO we took it. The hotel found us a roll away bed so we were all set.

None of us had eaten since breakfast and we were all starving. The hotel staff recommended a place called "Sliders" that was within walking distance. We dumped our bags in the room and walked out into the warm Florida evening. It was a far cry from Maryland which was still trying to shake off winter.

Sliders looked like a throw back to the beatnik coffee shops of the 50's. Dinner looked like it would cost us more than we were willing to spend, and nobody was too keen on all the cigarette smoke and the weak excuse for live entertainment they offered. We slid out of sliders and walked over to a Captain D's which is kind of like a Long John Silvers. We had a pretty good dinner for just a couple of bucks and walked back to the hotel feeling like a million dollars. We left a wake up call at the front desk for 5:30 AM and jabbered like school kids until well after midnight.

Saturday, April 8, 1995

The next morning came too early for me. We took a rip off $12 taxi ride to the airport and spent half an hour wiping dew off the airplanes. There was a beautiful paper thin fog layer about 100 feet over the airport. To our disappointment it dissipated just as we took off.

The next stop was Lakeland airport and the Sun-n-Fun fly-in, 189 miles away. There wasn't the usual chatter between us this morning. We climbed in silence to our cruising altitude of 3,500 feet. We were paralleling the coastline for a few miles and I think everyone was just soaking up the beauty of the early morning flying. Our course eventually took us away from the coast and over the open countryside of northern Florida.

I had talked my wife into a Garmin 95XL for Christmas, and so far it had functioned flawlessly. Before I left I had programmed in the entire route of flight. Now all I had to do was turn it on and it automatically sequenced itself for the next leg. I never had to touch anything but the on button. A GPS does for navigation chores what an autopilot does for flying. Don't leave home without it.

About an hour later, while flying over Lake George, Kevin started a climb to 8,000 feet to get some video on top of a cloud deck. Bill and I stayed at 3,000. While over the cloud deck Kevin's Loran suddenly and without warning, quit. He had lost sight of us during the climb and was now, for all intents and purposes, dead lost. Our first indication that something was amiss came when we heard Kevin over the radio.

"Uhhh, say guys, are you anywhere near the end of this big lake?"

"We're on the west edge of it Kevin, about half way across."


"Where are you?"

"Well I'm not exactly sure."

"Say what?"

Kevin finally fessed up and told us that his $2,500 panel mount Loran wasn't working. Bill and I spent 20 minutes describing landmarks and circling the southwest corner of the lake until Kevin finally spotted us.

Nearing Lakeland we all decided that we couldn't get this close to Disney World without getting pictures and video of it. We altered course a little to the east and to my utter amazement actually found the place. We circled Disney World once snapping pictures and Kevin took some video of it. Having dragged my daughter through the place on more than one occasion I can tell you It sure looks a lot bigger when you're walking through it with a tired six year old on your back.

The Disney mission completed, Bill and I punched direct Lakeland into our nine hundred dollar GPS's for the final few miles to the Mecca of sport aviation. Meanwhile Kevin was still punching and slapping his two thousand dollar, panel mounted Loran trying to get it to work.

Both the official air to air frequency, 122.75 and the unofficial one, 123.45 was absolutely filled with the chatter as pilots formed up on each other and jockeyed for landing position. It was kind of weird because you could hear all these guys reporting their position all around you but you couldn't see them. The big sky theory in action. The traffic didn't really bother us because we weren't going into the general aviation side anyway. Being able to mix it up with the low and slows we were going to slip into the ultralight side of the airport. As we got to within five miles of the field we dropped down to five hundred feet per the ultralight arrival procedures and came up from the south. Since Bill had been here before he was our new leader. We slipped into the ultralight pattern and except for dodging a little light rain landed at 11:00 AM without a problem.

The dream was now complete. I had made it.

We all had grins from ear to ear as we tied down the planes. We slapped each other on the back and made phone calls home to our wives on Kevin's mobile phone. I was in a daze. I didn't believe I had actually done it.

Sun-n-Fun didn't officially start until tomorrow so the exhibitors were still setting up. We went over to the RANS booth and said hi to Randy Schlitter and the rest of the RANS gang. Randy and John Schlitter were happy to see that we had made the trip and spent quite a while talking to us. Kevin mentioned the problem he had with his Loran during the trip. Randy happened to have the same kind of Loran mounted in his S-6 so he agreed to have a look. It appeared that Kevin had his Loran set up to receive the GRI's in Canada or the Great Lakes or some place half way around the world. Once he set it to the proper station it worked fine. $2,500 for a loran and you have to tell it where to look for nav signals. Boy was I spoiled by GPS.

I drooled all over the new S-7 with the super slick Superflite paint job while Kevin and Bill crawled all over the S-6. All you could hear from everyone was..."Wow look at this!" and "I'm going to do this to mine!"

We ran into the Capital Area Light Flyers crowd. They had a nice place set up with an awning, some chairs and several coolers of drinks. They invited us to take a load off and we had to tell everyone about the beach run the day before. We looked at all the new stuff and visited until around 4:00 PM. We were starting to get some intermittent light rain showers and some towering CU were building towards the direction of Winter Haven airport where our hotel was. We decided we had better get while the getting was good.

We got to Winter Haven in about 25 minutes and had to fight our way into the pattern. The place was an absolute madhouse as pilots were arriving in a steady stream. The only parking spaces available were way in the back in the grass. We finally tied down at 5:00 PM and ordered a fuel truck. Everyone was hot and tired. I wanted a cold beer so bad I couldn't stand it.

It was already dark by the time we got to the hotel. We had a mediocre pizza and cold beer in the hotel restaurant because everyone was too tired to go anywhere else. We all wanted to watch the video of the beach run that Kevin had taken and decided to ask at the front desk if they rented VCR's. Kevin had been complaining for the last three hundred miles of the trip about how bad his hemorrhoids were acting up and wanted to know where he could buy some Vaseline to help ease the friction. The exchange went something like this:

Me: "Excuse me ma'am do you rent VCR's?

Lady at the desk: "Why yes we do."

Kevin: "And do know where I can get some Vaseline"?

Dead silence.

The lady at the front desk took a step back and eyed us suspiciously. Bill was the first to figure out how we must've sounded and reached over and smacked Kevin over the head. We tried to assured her that we were not funny boys. She rented us the VCR and pointed out a drug store across the street. To this day she probably tells all her friends about the night the three weirdo's stayed in her hotel.

We had to watch the video of the beach run about three hundred times, but finally fatigue caught up with us. We left a wake up call with the front desk for 5:00 AM. Outside a steady rain was falling and there were occasional flashes of lightning. By 9:30 we were doing a pretty decent imitation of three dead people.

Sunday, April 9, 1995

The next morning we were up at 5:00 AM. The plan was to fly into Lakeland to see the hot air balloon launch which was planned for opening day. We walked in total darkness about three blocks to a Denny's for breakfast. Once we had finished and went back outside we saw the bad news. We were completely socked in by fog. I mean it was a heavy fog. Just walking through the air little beads of water collected on the hairs of your legs and arms and your shirt and pants would be soaked. Fish could live for days in this stuff. It reminded me of the two years I spent in southeast Asia. We took a taxi to the airport anyhow and arrived to find the FBO closed. We sat around until 8:30 wishing the fog away. The forecast was for the fog to lift by 9-10:00 AM, but there was a chance it would linger until noon. Do we stick around the airport and hope it lifts so we can fly the planes in, or do we find a ride to Lakeland and leave the planes here? We struck up a conversation with a guy who called himself Sonny. Sonny was driving to Lakeland and offered to drive us there and back. We hemmed and hawed a bit then finally decided to accept his offer.

We weren't at the airshow for 30 minutes when in the blink of an eye the fog was gone and we had beautiful blue sky. I'd never seen anything like it. Kevin started jumping up and down like a maniac and yelling "We gotta go get our planes! We gotta go get our planes! Jeepers we flew 800 miles and now they're sitting just 15 miles away!"

Kevin came from a very religious family and he never cussed. Whenever he got excited he would say things like "jeepers" or "golly" or "gosh-darn-it". Listening to him talk was like watching Leave it to Beaver re-runs. He reminded me of Wally Cleaver. The whole trip I kept wishing he would use some kind of manly swear word just once. But he never did.

Since Kevin seemed on the verge of having a heart attack Sonny graciously offered to drive us back to Winter Haven to pick up the planes. We in turn offered to fly him to and from the airshow in one of our planes. As it turned out it was his first ride in a homebuilt light plane. Considering Sonny had just met us I thought it was quite an act of faith. Kevin ended up flying him to Lakeland and back to Winter Haven that day.

We arrived at Sun-n-Fun right in the middle of the manufactures showcase. This is where the company pilots fly the airplanes around the pattern while the manufacturer gets up on the announcers stand and lies about his performance specs. When we arrived the amphibians were tearing the place up. I got cut out of the pattern three times before I slipped into a hole and landed. Once on the ground John Schlitter came running up and said that he had three parking spaces in front of the RANS booth. That meant we were tying our planes inside the fence where all the non-pilots could crawl all over it. I was not comfortable about that at all. All day long I had people setting up chairs, coolers and umbrellas all around my airplane. It made me a nervous wreck.

We wandered around aimlessly looking at all the neat stuff and Kevin bought a handheld ICOM A-22. I ran into a friend of mine, Tom Bayne over at the warbird side of the field. Tom had painted my S-7 for me and had flown down in his PT-26 Cornell. And true to form he was decked out head to toe in a period, WWII, long sleeve khaki uniform. I was just about ready to melt in shorts and a T-shirt. I don't know how Tom does it.

We all got back to the ultralight side of the field around a quarter to seven. The airshow was over and the green flag was up signaling it was OK for general flying. We wanted to leave and get back to Winter Haven, but had to wait in a line of 15-20 ultralights for our turn to take off. The ground controllers would clear one guy for takeoff and then five or six would land and taxi to the end of the line. Then one or two more would be cleared for takeoff and five or six more would land. I sat there sweltering in 85 degree heat for so long my engine started to load up from oil fouling. They finally released Bill, and Kevin then put me into position and hold while they tried to get a powered backpack parachute airborne. This poor guy was trying to take off with another person strapped to his chest. Strapped together like that they looked like some kind of grotesque Siamese twins. They were hopping all over the field with some little 2-stroke screaming its guts out on their back. It was really too windy for powered parachutes but they were very determined. They'd hop a few steps and the parachute would collapse and fall all over them, then it would inflate in the wind and drag the poor guys down the runway kicking and screaming. Finally the ground crew would tackled them and drag the whole mess off the runway to try again. Sure made me want to go out and buy one.

When the runway was finally clear they released me then the fun began. The ultralight pattern is only 400 feet. This is because the general aviation pattern starts at 500 feet and there is fast glass screaming across the field at over 200 mph. As soon as I broke ground I had to rack it around to the right to avoid the Pepsi plant (per the briefing I had). I needed a hundred feet or so to clear the trees, but had to stay below 300 feet because of the ultralights and powered parachutes tearing around the pattern at 400 feet doing laps. The departure procedures called for flying south below 500 feet for five miles before turning on course. Any further south than five miles and you found yourself right in the middle of the South Lakeland Airport traffic pattern. There were so many radio towers it was like a scene from Star Wars where they flew those motorcycle things through the forest. With procedures like these your odds of survival were roughly the equivalent of a B-17 waist gunner on the first daylight bombing raid over Germany. We finally cleared the area and made a bee line for Winter Haven. We once again fought our way into the very crowded pattern and landed then weaved our way through the packed parking area to the tiedown spot and shut down. I just sat there for a second listening to the ticking sound of my hot engine cooling down. I figured this is how it must have felt after returning from a raid over Baghdad during Desert Storm.

We ate dinner at Denny's because the first place we walked to was closed, it being Sunday evening. We crashed around midnight after a very tiring day.

Monday, April 10, 1995

On a trip like this the subject of weather is always the main topic of conversation. We'd been discussing the weather for the return trip since the moment we landed. The plan was to hit the air show today then leave right after the field opened around 5:30 - 6:00 PM. We'd get as far north as we could before dark and hopefully finish the trip on Tuesday before a wicked cold front was forecast to hit us. Kevin's parents and cousins and aunts and uncles and I guess everyone else in his clan were driving down to Lakeland just to see him. These were the same family members who saw him off in Hagerstown just a few days ago. Boy talk about a tight family. The only thing I got from my wife was..."Don't kill yourself, the yard needs mowed."

There was no fog this morning so we didn't even eat breakfast, just grabbed a coffee and a stale donut from the front desk as we ran for the taxi to the airport. We untied, dried about thirty pounds of water off the airplanes and made a bee line for Lakeland. We were hoping to arrive before the morning flying began. Fat chance. The ultralighters, powered parachutes and glider tows were going hot and heavy. Sheeze, these guys must sleep in their airplanes. Bill had a hard time finding a slot. He got cut off at least twice by someone in a Kolb. I was lucky and slipped right into the pattern and made the best landing I had ever made in my life. It was one of those landings where you can't feel your tires touch and usually occur when there is no one looking. Only this time there was a capacity crowd. I slowly got out of the airplane, adjusted my Ray Ban's and swaggered around a bit and acted like I made landings like that all the time. Kevin landed right after me and Bill finally made it in a few minutes later.

Kevin's family arrived around noon so he was happy he would get to see them before he left. While Kevin and Bill played host I went into the Flight Service for a weather briefing. The place looked like the betting windows at a horse track. Two or three briefers were talking non-stop while the pilots were lined up in four columns, five or six deep. My turn finally came and my briefer assured me that the only weather I would encounter tomorrow was 30-50 scattered all the way north. The east coast, she said, is where you want to be tomorrow.

Since we wanted to get going right after the air show I coordinated with air operations to move the planes to the end of the runway. I didn't want to sit behind thirty or forty ultralights who were just going to fly laps. I asked them if they could get us out first and they assured us they would. They told us we could leave as soon as the air show terminated at 5:45 PM.

At 5:30 the airshow ended a little ahead of schedule and we were several hundred yards from our planes. We saw the green flag go up and suddenly everybody was running for their airplanes like madmen. You'd have thought we were under attack and were scrambling after Migs or something. We ran like hell for the planes, yanked out the tiedowns and threw them in the planes dirt and all. We fired up and all checked in on frequency. The Tactical Air Command could've taken lessons from us that day. One Kolb got out ahead of us. The same old guy who lived in his plane. Once he was gone we were released. We dodged radio towers at 400 feet for five miles as the P-51's and Glassair's burned up the sky overhead. Everyone was busy setting up their cockpit, folding maps and programming their GPS's and Lorans. Once clear of the area we began a slow climb to 2,000 feet. We couldn't go any higher for the moment because of an overcast deck. We were 20 miles north before anybody relaxed.

For some reason my plane didn't seem to be performing quite as well as it had been. I attributed that to the 85 degree heat and the possibility of plug fouling because of all the leaded avgas I had put through it. I cranked up the RPM's a little to keep up with everyone else and figured I'd change plugs at Fernandina Beach.

We made it into Fernandina Beach right on the edge of darkness. I rolled onto base leg and reached down for my first notch of flaps and found to my surprise that they were already deployed! In all the rush and confusion I apparently didn't get the flap handle all the way down after takeoff and had flown the entire leg with one notch of flaps deployed. That explained the speed loss. I mentally kicked myself for that one.

We refueled by flashlight and shared a taxi with two pilots that had just landed in a Gulfstream III. While we were laughing and cutting up these two just sat there like mannequins. Our attempts to engage them in conversation failed miserably. I guess the jet jockeys thought they were too good to talk to homebuilders. The G-3 jocks were dropped off at the rip-off hotel. Money being a little tight we told the taxi driver to take us to another, less expensive place for the night. We drove another couple of blocks to the obviously low rent district. When the taxi driver stopped Kevin told him to hang around because he wanted to check the place out before we decided. When the manager opened the door to one of the rooms, two cockroaches the size of small dogs came running out. Kevin looked at us with eyes the size of saucers. Without saying a word we grabbed our bags, hopped a stone fence and hoofed it back to the rip-off hotel.

Since the tennis tournament was over the price was only $72. Kevin complained about getting gouged the other day so the lady didn't charge us for the roll away. Kevin was unbelievable that way. He was so polite he could gripe and complain in such a way that he could get anything he wanted.

We had dinner at the hotel restaurant and ran into the 26 year old co-pilot of the G-3 we had shared a taxi with. He was waiting for his captain to come down for dinner. When the captain didn't show we convinced the kid to join us at our table. We told him we all thought his captain was a real stuffed shirt, although that's not the word we used. The co-pilot told us he thought so too. He turned out to be a pretty nice kid. Just a little intimidated by his captain. We all took great pleasure in trashing the captain in his absence.

Tuesday, April 11, 1995

We staggered awake at 5:30 feeling the effect of not enough sleep and the stress of constant flying. We had a quick breakfast and took a taxi to the airport. We couldn't believe our luck when we found out we were forecast to have tailwinds! We took off into a stiff breeze and headed for the beach for one more run. We made our last beach run this time with Bill doing the filming. It was great. We were flying so low I actually had to climb to clear a volleyball net. When the beach ran out we climbed up to 3,000 feet and picked up the promised tailwinds. Our groundspeed was between 100-103 mph and it was perfectly smooth. I must've checked my flaps five or six times the first half-hour alone just to make sure they were fully up.

After skirting the Savanna TCA we set course for our first refueling stop, Santee Cooper Regional (MNI), which was about 55 miles northeast of Walterboro, where we had refueled coming down. Passing abeam Beaufort we started picking up a low scattered cumulus deck. The clouds looked pretty in the morning sun so we jockeyed around and took pictures of each other. Soon the scattered layer turned broken and further ahead it appeared to be a very ugly, dark overcast. I didn't like what I was seeing, and it sure as wasn't forecast so I voiced my concerns to the others. Kevin said he thought the overcast ended a little further ahead and thought we should stay on top. Kevin had a turn and bank in his airplane. Neither Bill nor I did. If we got caught on top it would be bad news. We flew on for several more minutes, watching the clouds ahead. The edge of the overcast was now only about five miles ahead of us. Decision time. I called Walterboro unicom and asked what their sky conditions looked like. The lady said that they had a solid overcast but she could see two miles. Walterboro was about 15 miles north of our position. I got back on 122.75 and told the others that the overcast appeared continuous and we should land and asses the situation before going further. Kevin still thought that we should stay on top. Bill hadn't said anything so far. By now the edge of the overcast layer was behind us and it was solid as far north as I could see. We were right over a large hole with thick clouds closing it up rapidly. I announced I was going under. The others could do what they wanted. Bill announced that he was following me. Kevin stayed on top. Bill and I circled down through the hole trying to keep each other in sight. On our way down we could see a radio tower sticking up through the overcast so I knew the bases would be low. We didn't get under the overcast until 400 feet. Visibility was a good three miles so I announced to Bill that I was going direct to Walterboro. Bill said he would watch for towers on the right and I said I would watch on the left. The GPS showed the airport 13 miles ahead. About this time Kevin decided he was coming down through the overcast. He was in the soup passing 700 feet and wanted to know where the base was. We told him to climb back up, fly south where it was clear and come in underneath because of the radio towers. Just about then Kevin announced he had broken out at 500 feet and was following us to Walterboro. The GPS had already paid for itself as far as I was concerned. I stayed glued on course and was boring holes through the sky with my eyeballs looking for radio towers. The GPS took me right over the airport and we all landed without incident. At that moment if someone had asked me to choose between my manhood and my GPS I'd be squatting to take a leak right now.

I checked the weather on a DUATS terminal and it was five hundred overcast a mile and a half with light drizzle and fog pretty much all along our intended route of flight. If we had stayed on top of the overcast and pressed on north we'd have eventually reached the point of no return where we wouldn't have had the fuel to fly to an airport where we could get down safely. That thought had a chilling effect.

We sat around for awhile and waited for the next hourly surface observation. It was the same. Bill was very agitated. He and Kevin had to get back to work. They discussed the possibility of taking a bus or renting a car. Then they pulled out the maps and started plotting a course back by hopping from airport to airport. The problem was unless we could get out today, we'd be stuck until Thursday because we'd get caught up in that cold front heading our way. The terminal forecasts said there was no way we were getting any further north today. Outside there was a steady stream of aircraft sneaking in under the overcast. Soon the lobby was filled with pilots all complaining about the unforecast ceilings and visibility. I had already decided I was staying put and could see where this was heading so I quickly grabbed the phone and made hotel reservations before all the rooms were booked.

I tried my best to talk Bill and Kevin out of flying home. I read them the latest hourly surface observations and the terminal forecasts. The look on Bill's face told me the discussion was over. He was leaving. Once it was obvious to me that he was going no matter what, I switched to pulling up surface obs and terminal forecasts trying to find a route home around the weather. Someone noticed that I was operating a DUATS terminal and before I knew it I was giving weather briefings. When I finally got off the terminal Bill and Kevin had completed their flight planning. They would hop from one airport to another. If the weather looked crappy ahead they'd turn around and land at the closest airport. I wished them good luck and told them that I had no desire to scud run for 400+ miles at 500 feet dodging radio towers. They said they understood. By noon Bill and Kevin were airborne. It was a crummy feeling breaking up the trio, but everyone had to make their own decision. Before I even left for this trip I had planned for at least a two day weather delay by packing extra socks, underwear and money. Also I was on leave from work until the end of the week so the weather delay was no big deal to me.

I hung around the airport until 4:00 PM to see if I could get my plane into an empty hangar before the storm hit. When it was apparent there were none available I put double ropes on all the tie downs. I tied the plane so tight the wings had about a 10 degree droop. If the storm blew through here it might rip the fuselage loose, but the wings were still going to be here in the morning.

All of the other pilots had gone to the hotel. The FBO operator offered to drive me there and I graciously accepted. Courtesy such as this was common throughout the trip. Jean dropped me off at a place called the Thunderbird Hotel (no kidding). The Thunderbird hotel was owned and operated by one Russ Kehl. Russ was an American. I say this because he really advertised the fact. He had a big sign out front that proudly proclaimed this establishment to be American owned. His shirt was even a print of the American flag.

Russ was a very nice guy. A little weird perhaps. Probably still carrying a little shrapnel in his brain from 'Nam. But his rooms were really very nice, clean and cheap. I only paid $19.95 a night. There were 20 other pilots there by the time I checked in.

I figured I'd be in Walterboro for at least tonight and tomorrow so I grabbed a six pack of beer from the local convenience store next door, took a long soak in a hot tub of water and watched HBO the rest of the night.

Later that evening I got a call from Bill Hass. He and Kevin had actually gotten through the weather and made it home. Bill said the weather was really terrible and the only way they made it around Raleigh-Durham was to follow interstate 95 at about 400 feet. He said I made the right decision to stay put. It was nice of him to say so, but I didn't need to hear it to feel good about my decision to stay. Still, one part of me felt a twinge of envy for not trying it. I couldn't believe those two nuts had actually made it.

Wednesday, April 12, 1995

I didn't wake up until 8:00 AM. I really needed the sleep. I bummed a ride to the airport with a couple of other pilots who had rented a car. Mike was flying a Stinson home with his uncle, Frank. Mike had just finished building a Challenger ultralight for Frank and Frank was going to trailer it back home to Florida.

We left the hotel in a rental car for the five mile drive to the airport and within three blocks were totally lost. Here were three pilots who had just navigated 1,200 miles up and down the east coast and were now totally lost in a town you could almost spit across. We eventually found our way to the airport and spent the day being shepherded around by a colorful old guy named Lloyd. Lloyd was one of the airport fixtures. He was 76 years old and flew Wildcats and Hellcats in the Pacific during WWII. He claimed to have seven kills to his credit, although he said he got most of them in one day. Lloyd was quite a character. He had millions of stories and no one to tell them to. We were his captive audience and he was having a ball. It turned out that Walterboro was an old military training base and covered over 8,000 acres. Lloyd made absolutely sure he showed us every square inch of it too.

Later that afternoon I talked to a guy who had built a 5151 mustang and had it parked in one of the hangars. He had spent several years building it and had equipped it with retracts. He powered it with a tired looking Rotax 503 with a single carb, giving it only 47 hp. To get the CG correct he had bolted a 126 pound block of lead to the nose!!! The lead ballast weighed more than the whole engine. I asked him why he didn't just install a larger, heavier engine? He said he had plenty of performance with the 503 and could get almost 400 feet per minute climb on a cool day. This poor fellow must have been used to flying store bought airplanes because in the kitplane world anything much less than 1000 fpm is considered pretty poor. Talking to one of the airport locals later in the day, he said that whenever this guy flew everybody just closed their eyes and crossed their fingers until he was back on the ground. He said he had already had one engine failure. No doubt because the poor little Rotax was working its guts out trying to haul this overweight pile of sticks off the ground. The funny part of it was this guy was driving around in a Mercedes 300. He wasn't short of money, just brains.

By 6:00 PM that afternoon I was getting pretty upset because the lousy weather that was predicted never materialized. There were low ceilings and high winds, but nothing like what had been forecast (what else is new?). I would've felt a whole lot better about sitting on the ground if the weather had been miserable. The weather was pretty miserable at home and along my route of flight whenever I checked, but at Walterboro there were just a few broken clouds. I didn't care if I only went 10 miles tomorrow, I was leaving.

Thursday, April 13, 1995

I was anxious to get back into the air again. Mike and Frank and I got to the airport at 7:45 AM and found it locked. It had rained that night and I must've sponged another twenty pounds of water off the airplane. Lloyd finally shuffled up around 8:00 AM and unlocked the FBO. He was wearing the same clothes I saw him in the day before. Come to think of it he was wearing the same clothes when we had refueled there 6 days ago.

I got a weather briefing off the DUATS terminal and was airborne by 8:15 AM. The first thing I noticed when leveling at 2,000 feet was not only was it smooth, but I actually had tailwinds again! I was getting a 12 mph push for a ground speed of 103 mph. Nobody gets tailwinds coming AND going. Headwinds yes, but tailwinds? Somebody up there liked me.

After the first 140 miles the air started getting a little choppy, probably because I was getting close to the front. Nearing Raleigh- Durham the outside air temperature dropped 20 degrees and my ground speed fell from 103 to 85 mph. Yep...I found the front all right.

I must not have gotten rid of all the coffee before I left because I really had to go bad. The problem was my planned refueling stop wasn't for another 50 miles. I didn't think I could last 50 more miles so after a little quick flight planning I decided to put into Southern Pines. I could fuel up there and easily make the 250 mile final leg to my home field. I took on 10 gallons of gas and drained about 40 gallons of coffee from my bladder and was airborne again in less than 20 minutes.

My new route of flight took me through the Raleigh-Durham TCA. I didn't want to fly around it and was not equipped to fly through it so I climbed to 4,500 to clear it. I picked up my tailwind again, but it was bitterly cold at that altitude. Just a reminder that winter still had its grip on the northeast. I watched in horror as my coolant temperature dropped from 160 to 140oF in less than five minutes. 140oF was the lower limit and it was still falling. I reached over to close the door to the radiator and the handle came off in my hand. I just sat there staring at this stupid chrome handle, shivering and watching the coolant temperature. If it got below 135oF, TCA or no TCA I was going down into warmer air. Fortunately the temperature stayed just a hair below 140o. Once clear of the TCA I dove to a lower altitude and it went back up into the normal range, but it never did get above 145o.

Even at the lower altitude I was still freezing. I couldn't reach my coat because it was packed in the rear baggage compartment. It had been 70 degrees when I left Walterboro that morning. To make matters worse I must not have drained all the coffee at Southern Pines because I really had to go again. I didn't want to make another unscheduled stop and loose my tailwind. Suddenly I remembered I had packed a plastic urinal just for such emergencies. I really felt like the clever one for bringing this thing along. That feeling didn't last very long when I realized that it wouldn't fit between...well... me and the joystick. I figured I might be able to make it work with a little wiggling around. But the air was still choppy and I could just see myself struggling to use this bottle, hit some turbulence and drop the thing and pee all over my dash and probably short out my GPS or something. The mental image wasn't pretty. I would land.

There was an airport 15 miles away directly along my route of flight so I headed for that. Now that I was dwelling on the subject the bladder really started filling up fast. I got over the airport just in the nick of time. When I looked for the windsock to determine the active runway I almost died. It looked like it was starched stiff and pointing 90 degrees to the runway. Jeeze, the last thing I needed was to ground loop 135 miles from home. I checked the chart and there was another airport 15 miles further north with a runway aligned more into the wind. I could hold it for fifteen more miles. Right?

This was, absolutely and without a doubt, the longest fifteen miles I had ever flown in my entire life. I kept watching the ETA on the GPS count down the seconds until my arrival. I was really hurting. Half way to the field I seriously considered just peeing in my pants. I called entering downwind through clenched teeth, beads of cold sweat breaking out on my forehead. I hit the runway like an F-18 hits a carrier and took the first turnoff on one wheel. Once I cleared the runway I spun the tail around, threw open the door, rolled out of the airplane and hobbled over to the bushes in a low crouch. I thought I might have actually lost consciousness for 30 or 40 seconds it felt so good.

That little emergency over I taxied up to the FBO. Since my wing tanks were still full I didn't buy any gas. But I did spend a few minutes talking to an older gentlemen named Dan, just to make sure my bladder wasn't playing tricks on me. Dan had heard me call on unicom and had driven from his home to unlock the FBO. Dan was very interested in my plane and took me completely by surprise when he asked if I wanted to sell it. I thought he was kidding so I brushed it aside with a laugh, but he was serious. Since I had no desire to walk the last 120 miles home I declined his offer. As I was getting ready to leave Dan reminded me that if I ever wanted to sell to call him first. That's what makes flying so much fun. Weird stuff like this happens to you almost everywhere you go. I remembered to put on my coat and gloves before I took off.

The turbulence had calmed down a bit the further away from the front I got and I still had my tailwind. I rounded the northwest side of the Richmond TCA and just happened to glance down at the right time and could see the theme park, Kings Dominion. I could tell by the replica Eiffel Tower. I snapped a quick picture as I flew over. Even though it was a little cool the roller coasters were running.

Coming up on the Potomac River my route of flight would have taken me directly through the 3 mile wide strip of restricted area at Dalgrens Navel Surface Weapons Center. R6611-A went from the surface to God and God only knew what kind of weird stuff they were shooting down there. Pax River approach control said the restricted area was hot. I thought briefly about just blasting right on through since at my ground speed I'd only be in there for about 90 seconds. But I had already given my call sign and it would be my luck the navy had some kind of top secret camera that could photograph my "N" numbers or something. So for the umpteenth time during this trip the GPS really paid off. I simply called up the moving map and traced the outline of the restricted airspace with my ground track. Minimum hassle and wasted time. Man I really loved this little plastic box of Japanese electronics. Too bad we invented the thing and maintained the satellites, but couldn't make 'em cheap enough to sell.

My warm sun had disappeared behind a dirty looking stratus deck that looked worse than it actually was. I picked up the landmarks at my home field about 20 miles out and felt a twinge of disappointment that the trip was over. I landed six days and 22.2 flight hours after departing earlier on Friday.


We only encountered two mechanical problems during the entire trip. Once Kevin's in-flight adjustable IVO prop got stuck in flat pitch when a wire jiggled loose. He stuck it back on and crimped it and had no further problem. And I lost a screw from an access door on top of my cowling. After all the preparation I had gone to and all the aircraft nuts and bolts and spare parts I brought along, I lost a screw that I got from a lousy screen door. As far as I was concerned this completely validated my theory that if you bring along a spare part, then that part will not fail. The only part I didn't have a spare to was the screen door screw, therefore that part fell off the airplane. You can't convince me that this theory isn't true.

For the entire trip I averaged 4.8 gph fuel burn at 5800 rpm at 1100o-F EGT. Bill averaged a little over 5 gph at 5600 rpm at 1050o-F EGT. I was running my 582 two hundred more RPM than Bill, but still got a better fuel burn due to the Ellison. Kevin figured he had burned around 4 gph average in his 912 running at 5200 rpm.

If any homebuilder is considering flying his own creation to one of the EAA's premiere events, I whole heartedly recommend that you avail yourself of this experience at the earliest opportunity. Even if you repeat the trip many times, your first trip, like your first true love, will burn a memory in your brain that will last a lifetime.

Mark Ambrose

The author is a Commercial pilot with Instrument and CFII ratings. He has worked as a flight instructor, part 135 air charter pilot and Air Traffic Controller in Tower, Center, Approach Control and Flight Service positions. He holds a bachelors degree in Professional Aeronautics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He owns and fly's a RANS S-7 he built from a kit in 1992. He currently resides in Waldorf, Maryland.

Click here for the original ASCII version.
Go Back to the Ultralight home page